Decades of government advisories weren't enough to save four people from being thrown from a 15-passenger church van that flipped on a Missouri highway this month.
Three teenagers died.
They were among eleven teens and two adults from Faith Chapel Assembly of God near Kansas City traveling to Arkansas when they crashed in southwestern Missouri. The driver and all other passengers were injured.
The tragedy is all too familiar for families mourning the deaths of more than 600 people in 15-passenger van rollovers since 2001. That figure represents deaths in crashes where a van was the only vehicle involved. A Courier Journal investigation of early-model vans published in May found that regulators have largely failed to protect people from the unwieldy vehicles.
Auto makers have either stopped producing the vehicles or have added safety features in newer models to reduce rollover risk.
Schools have largely banned the vans, but the low-cost older models remain popular among churches.
[Churches around Louisville and across Kentucky commonly use the vans, just as they employed surplus school buses 30 years ago, when 27 people died in a fiery crash on Interstate 71 near Carrollton on May 14, 1988.]
About 600,000 15-passenger vans of all makes are still on the road today, according to a 2015 estimate by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It is unclear how many have electronic stability control, but more than 1 million vans were sold without that feature after the first government safety advisory was issued in 2001.
Although attempts to recall the vans fizzled long ago, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration director told the Courier Journal she will renew her drive to get the vans off the road in response to the recent deaths.
Joan Claybrook, the former NHTSA head, said the deaths show the government’s approach – an awareness campaign – isn’t working.
That awareness campaign urges van users to buckle up. It advises operators to monitor tire condition and avoid carrying loads in the rear of the van, which makes them less stable.
Yet only three teenagers in the Faith Chapel van were wearing seat belts, and the van was towing a trailer.
Claybrook said she will send NHTSA a letter demanding that the agency recall the vans and require manufacturers to retrofit them with dual rear wheels to improve stability.
“These companies could more than afford to fix these vehicles,” Claybrook said. "The consequences of losing a child are astronomical.''
The government, automakers and insurance companies have “totally failed these people,” she said.
The most recent crash happened near Bolivar, Missouri on Aug. 10 when a rear tire on the church-owned 2001 GMC van blew, causing it to roll.
Samara Bayse, 17, Hannah Foy, 14, and David Martin, 16, died. They were traveling with friends to Arkansas for a river float. All 10 other passengers in the van were hospitalized, three with serious injuries.
Bayse, who would have been a high school senior, planned to attend Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Texas to become a youth minister, according to her obituary.
"We had a nickname for her before she was even born," said her father, Thomas Bayse. "We called her 'angel face.' She had always been my angel face."
Foy finished reading the Bible the day before she died, completing a pact with her mother to read it within one year.
“She looked at me with a big smile and a gleam in her eye and pronounced 'I just finished reading the Bible yesterday,'" Jennifer Foy wrote in a Facebook post recounting their last conversation.
David “Tommy” Martin was preparing for his junior year of high school. According to his obituary, he was the eldest of several siblings. He enjoyed playing music and was devoutly Christian. In Martin's phone, his family found a note he had written to describe himself.
“I am on this earth to lead people into God’s presence through worship and showing His presence to other (sic) through my union with God,” Martin wrote.
As previously reported by the Courier Journal, the van wrecks tend to follow the same pattern: A back tire blows, the van rolls, people are thrown. Families and church members ask for prayers.
That's what happened when Nola Murphy, 76, died June 17 on a North Carolina highway. She and other Charlotte-area church members were returning from a church trip when the rear tire of a 2002 Ford E350 blew and the van flipped.
Other passengers suffered broken bones, said North Carolina State Trooper Mark Leonard.
Murphy "was a simple woman with a sweet spirit" who had eight children and nine grandchildren, according to her obituary.
Murphy's death parallels that of a Florida woman, Michalanne Salliotte, who died in 2014 when the same make and model van blew a tire and flipped while on a church outing. As reported by the Courier Journal in May, a jury this year awarded Salliotte’s family nearly $20 million. Ford was saddled with a major share of the blame because of the vehicle design.
"It is the same story, over and over," said Rick Koehler, a South Carolina man who lost his 10-year-old granddaughter, Alexis, in a similar accident in 2007. He has been trying for a decade to increase government oversight of van usage.
Industry experts have said regulators and lawmakers are unlikely to move on the issue because they don't want to be seen as interfering with religious institutions.
The federal government first reported in 2001 that the vans' center of gravity shifts up and to the rear when fully loaded, raising the likelihood of rollover if the driver makes a tight turn or swerves for any reason.
The analysis included the Ford E350, the GMC Savannah, the Dodge Ram Wagon and the Chevrolet Express.
Federal regulators mandated that the vans come with electronic stability control after the automakers voluntarily added it, but neither of the church vans involved in the recent fatalities had the system.
NHTSA maintains the vehicles are fine if safely driven and maintained. The agency has published a long list of safety guidelines, issued press releases, sent bulletins to advocacy organizations and posted safety tips on its website.
Those recommendations include requiring seat belts, regular tire replacement, vehicle inspections and cargo restrictions.
Claybrook called the advisories "useless," saying NHTSA's analysis then was enough to justify a recall. Churches should not be expected to know how to mitigate the dangers associated with the vans, she said.
In an emailed response to a request for comment on the two recent crashes, NHTSA said it "is deeply saddened to learn that 3 teenagers and a woman were killed in two separate crashes involving a 15 passenger van."
Asked whether it would consider additional measures to address the issue, the agency again emphasized its public outreach and advisories.
"The agency continues to educate the public about the unique properties of driving these vans by regularly issuing consumer advisories, and recommends anyone tasked with driving these vans become educated on the unique properties of safe operation," NTHSA said.
But some church leaders contacted by the Courier Journal in May said they were unaware of any government warnings.
Reverend Nate Edwards, whose Charlotte-based Cathey Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church owned the van that crashed in North Carolina, told the Courier Journal he didn't know about rollover risks. He declined further comment.
Leonard said the tire that blew appears to have been recalled, and few passengers were wearing seat belts. He said the passengers were found piled on top of each other in the wreck.
[Rick Koehler has spent years trying to raise awareness and increase government oversight of 15-passenger van since the death of his granddaughter.]
Though some denominations have advised churches to park the vans, not all listen.
The attorney for the Assemblies of God denomination, which includes Faith Chapel, recommends against using the vans, said spokesman Keith Surface. Churches that still drive them should mandate seat belt use and not tow trailers, attorney Richard Hammar has written.
The pastor of Faith Chapel, Bob Cave, told the Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader that he plans to replace the wrecked van with a similar one. He did not respond to a Courier Journal request for additional comment.
Koehler called the deaths "senseless."
“You never go on this kind of trip without seat belts. You never carry anything on the roof. And you never tow a trailer," he said. "It’s just so sad. I don’t know how you can be any clearer about it.”
Koehler said the deaths are deeply disturbing because he knows the grief families of the teens will endure.
“It’s sort of like a person that has a leg amputated. Over time, they learn to live with it, but they never are healed," he said "It’s been over 11 years for me and losing my granddaughter is as fresh in mind as the day it happened.”
Contributing: Harrison Keegan, Springfield News-Leader